Monday, November 16, 2009

This literary life

Last week my adopted country honoured one of the great living writers of my country of birth - and not a moment too soon.

Karel Schoeman's Afrikaans novel, Hierdie lewe, was published quite a long time ago in South Africa (1993 to be exact), where it won the Hertzog Prize, the biggest cherry on the local literary cake. Although many of the author's other novels have also received important awards in South Africa, his works are not widely translated and he is not nearly as well-known internationally as his literary compatriots JM Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, André P Brink and nowadays even Deon Meyer. Hierdie lewe had to wait nearly two decades before it finally found a French publisher, the relatively unknown Phébus, which published Pierre-Marie Finkelstein's translation earlier this year under the title Cette Vie.

Et voilà! Within a few months the Afrikaans novel wins France's Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger (PMLE) 2009 - which can be directly translated as Prize for the Best Foreign Book- a highly respected literary prize with a proud 61-year history. You simply have to look at the list of previous prize-winners to realise that this is la cour des grands, as the French say, 'the playground of the big kids'.

From Nobel laureates like Gabriel García Márquez and, more recently, Orhan Pamuk (who was crowned in 2002, before he won the Nobel Prize) to many notable names from the Anglo-Saxon literary universe like Salman Rushdie, John Updike, John Fowles, Peter Carey, Philip Roth, Graham Swift and Anthony Burgess - they have all received the PMLE during the past few decades.

The list is also a fascinating mix of 'serious' and more 'popular' authors, with recent laureates like the American Nicole Krauss for The History of Love and the Spanish Carlos Ruiz Zafón for The Shadow of the Wind. And the crowned novels are translated from an impressive variety of languages. Of course the 'big' languages like German (Günter Grass and others), Spanish (Mario Vargas Llosa and others), Russian (Vassili Grossman and others) and Japanese (Yasunari Kawabata and others) are well represented, but it is a pleasant surprise to spot so many 'smaller' languages on the list: Estonian (Jaan Kross), Lituanian (Youozas Baltouchis), Polish (Bruno Shulz), Hungarian (Péter Nádas), Swedish (Per Olof Enquist)... And now, for the first time, also Afrikaans.

Hierdie lewe (This Life) presents us with an old woman on her deathbed, recalling her long and lonely life in an isolated farming community in the Roggeveld towards the end of the nineteenth century. Since this is supposed to be a personal blog, I might as well confess that it is not my personal favourite among Schoeman's books - perhaps because I read it too soon after the Australian Patrick White's The Eye of the Storm, another novel dealing with an old woman on her deathbed, which really knocked me out.

I know, I know, 'comparisons are odious', as John Donne stated, and White's magnificent novel convinced even the judges of the the Nobel Prize to crown him in 1973, but there you are. I've always preferred Schoeman's earlier 'n Ander land (Another Country), which also earned him the Hertzog Prize a decade before Hierdie lewe, and once again gives us a dying protagonist at the end of the nineteenth century. This time it is an ailing Dutchman who comes to the dry climate of the Orange Free State for health reasons. His alienation and slow acceptance of death are brilliantly depicted, and the landscape of the Free State (where Schoeman was born) is beautifully drawn.

I have to admit, though, that I find most of Schoeman's novels brilliant but too 'bloodless' for my taste, too dry and too cold for someone like me who's always searching for Roy Campbell's famous bloody horse when reading fiction. From the poem On Some South African Novelists:

You praise the firm restraint with which they write -
I'm with you there, of course:
They use the snaffle and the curb all right,
But where's the bloody horse?

Still, I feel unexpectedly proud that Hierdie lewe is not only the first Afrikaans novel to win the PMLE, but in fact the first South African novel on the long list. The South African Nobel laureates JM Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer, who both write in English, have never featured among the winners. Not that I prefer Schoeman to Coetzee; in fact, Coetzee's later novels please me precisely because I'm beginning to see at least the skeleton of the bloody horse. But I do think it worth mentioning that Coetzee, in spite of his far wider international renown, has not yet conquered the jury of the PMLE.

So, yes, I am grateful that a novel in my mother tongue has finally joined this illustrious list of foreign works honoured by the finicky French. Schoeman had to wait sixteen years for the honour - but in the literary world, as in life, it is always better to arrive late than not to show up at all. Dankie, Karel Schoeman.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Out of the writer's vault

No, I haven't disappeared in cyberspace. I just went MIA (Missing In Action), busy, busy, busy writing my own book instead of writing about other people's books.

Not that I stopped reading while writing – I only stop reading to breathe and sleep – I simply took a short break from writing about reading.

Now I’m BIA (Back in Action), trying to recall the reading delights of the past few weeks. The novel that stands out in my memory, is Anne Michaels’s latest, The Winter Vault. Like many other readers, I was absolutely enchanted by her previous novel, Fugitive Pieces. This 1997 Orange Prize winner - praised by the great John Berger as ‘the most important book I have read for forty years’- tells the story of a Greek geologist (Athos) and a small Polish boy (Jakob) whose lives are transformed by the Second World War. The writing was described as ‘incandescent’ and the language as ‘electric with life’.

A hard act to follow, indeed. Besides, it is always a bit of a gamble to read a second book by an author whose first book you adored. Your expectations are so high that some form of disappointment is almost inevitable. So let me get this off my chest: The Winter Vault is an excellent book – but it didn’t thrill and exhiliarate me as Fugitive Pieces had.

Anne Michaels is a poetic, lyrical novelist, if ever there was one, a superb stylist whose language delights the ear, the eye and the heart on every page. I have to admit, though, that in this latest novel the dialogue sometimes sounded a little too stylised to me. The way her characters speak – all those lovely, long, often lyrical monologues – was simply not realistic enough to sustain the suspension of disbelief that I find vital to the enjoyment of fiction. I kept thinking, no, surely people don’t talk this way? Do they?

Still, the novel offers more than enough reading pleasure, with a narrative spanning three continents and many decades, as well as quite a few memorable characters who are all displaced, lost and searching in different ways. Michaels has a particular talent for illustrating how huge historical events shape small human lives. This time water, rather than war, causes most of the havoc. The displacement of people caused by the construction of gigantic dams, in Egypt and North America, is the thread running throughout this fictional tapestry.

If this sounds more like engineering or social history than story-telling, well, the author has evidently done an enormous amount of research, but she never loses touch with her characters, their emotions and their experiences. The Winter Vault stays a story - and therein lies its glory.

Pity about the dialogue, though.